Feb 20, 2017

War of the Ring: Three Is Company

Last summer, I got myself a copy of the War of the Ring boardgame, and was lucky enough to get to play it as both the Shadow and the Free Peoples. However, these were both two-player games, and they left us wondering: if a two-player game was such a massive, exhausting and epic experience, what would a three-player game be like? Obviously we had to find out.


The three-player version of War of the Ring has one player controlling the Free Peoples and two splitting Shadow duties: one controls Sauron's forces, while the other plays as Saruman, commanding Isengard, the Haradrim and the Easterlings. I took the latter role while my brother picked Sauron. We did a little bit of role-playing and agreed to not co-ordinate our actions; it's not as if Sauron and Saruman saw eye to eye on anything! We figured it'd be more fun this way.

The rules for a three-player game involve the Shadow players splitting event cards between them and taking turns to use their shared action dice. To compensate for each Shadow player's relative action disadvantage, the lone Free Peoples player can't use an action on units of the same nation twice in a row. Other than those things, though, it plays pretty much exactly the same as a one-on-one game. So here goes!

Right off the bat, the Free Peoples got into serious trouble. After several unsuccesful Hunt rolls, they ended up stuck at the Fords of Bruinen for ages, racking up considerable corruption and losing both Legolas and Gandalf. We reckon that the crebain found them, guided some wargs in, and eventually our troops:

With the Fellowship struggling to make their way to Lórien, we decided to press the issue, and went on the attack. Saruman's forces stormed out of Isengard, the Haradrim massed outside Pelargir, and the Witch-king led the forces of Mordor to Minas Tirith.

The result? Stalemate. The Uruk-hai were defeated outside Helm's Deep and had to retreat. The brave defenders of Pelargir fought off the Southron horde. Finally, in a massive field battle outside Minas Tirith, the armies of Mordor inflicted grievous casualties on the Gondor defenders, but the line held.

Meanwhile, the Fellowship was once again in trouble in the Parth Celebrant: Gimli had set off on a personal errand across Mirkwood - where he spent the rest of the game - and Pippin had become separated from the fellowship, finding himself in Fangorn. He eventually made his way to Edoras, where he raised a Rohan army and led it east, where they nearly routed the Witch-king's retreating forces!

This stalemate cost the Free Peoples troops they could hardly afford to lose, but it cost the Shadow time we couldn't afford. After the massive losses on both sides, there was a lull as both sides built up their forces, and the fellowship made use of this to sneak all the way down to Minas Tirith. Here, Aragorn and the other remaining companions stayed behind to lead the battle, while Frodo and Sam, soon joined by Gollum, made their perilous way toward Mordor. By this point, as the Shadow players, since our initial gambit at a military victory had failed, we had to divide our efforts between trying to stack the Hunt pool against the fellowship and wearing down the remaining Free Peoples armies. Soon enough, we were making progress: an Easterling horde took Dale and the Woodland Realm, the dwarves sitting out in aloof neutrality and Gimli still lost somewhere in Mirkwood, and penetrated as far west as the Carrock. Boromir fell heroically in the defense of Pelargir, but eventually the Haradrim took the city, and the Corsairs of Umbar landed in Dol Amroth. A combined Mordor-Isengard force stormed Helm's Deep, routing Rohan for good.

Unfortunately, it was all in vain, because the fellowship, teetering on the edge of corruption, made it to the Cracks of Doom.

Almost unbelievably, the game ended in as close a shave as my first attempt: the Shadow had nine victory points and was closing on a tenth when the Fellowship made its last move on the Mordor track. This time, the Hunt pool was so depleted that it came down to pretty much a coin toss: about half of the tiles would have either stopped the Fellowship or inflicted enough corruption to end the game. The coin landed on the other face, so to speak, but once again, it's hard to see how the game could have been much closer.


Once again, a thoroughly exhausting but awesome time was had. Finally, some observations. Based on our very limited sample of three games, my feeling at this point is that playing as the Shadow is harder. At this point, this is just a hypothesis, but having tried both, I think the Free Peoples have the easier job because you have a clearer focus: get the Fellowship to Mordor and try to survive until they reach the volcano. A Free Peoples military victory is, in my mind at least, either something you go for from the beginning, or a response to mistakes by the Shadow side. In any case, I think the Free Peoples side is in this sense at least easier to play. The Shadow player(s), on the other hand, need to divide action dice and units between hunting the Fellowship and pursuing a military victory. This is complicated by the fact that paradoxically, the closer the fellowship gets to Mordor, the less opportunities the Shadow has to hinder it. At least in this game, once the Fellowship made it to Minas Tirith, there wasn't a whole lot we could do except draw character cards, try to get new Hunt tiles into play and generally hope for cards we could use to harass the Fellowship. Based on our few games, co-ordinating all this seems a lot harder than focusing on getting the hobbits to Mordor.

Our experience of the three-player format, however, was overwhelmingly positive. In so far as there's a point to this blog post, it's to encourage anyone with the opportunity to play War of the Ring to try it with three players, because it really is that much more fun. Not only is it a more social experience, but especially if the two Shadow players refrain from directly co-ordinating, it creates lots of interesting dynamics. I wish there was a way for the Saruman player to hunt the Ring himself! Even without that, though, splitting the Shadow side really makes for a much better game.

All in all, War of the Ring remains one of the greatest board games I've ever played. Next time, we're trying an expansion!

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